by Don Vaughan
Few toy franchises have experienced the kind of success enjoyed by G.I. Joe. With the exception of Barbie, Joe and his camouflage-clad buddies are perhaps the most famous and beloved toy line in the world.
Hasbro released the first G.I. Joe action figures in 1964, and young boys snatched ’em up by the thousands. Named for the 1945 William Wellman war flick The Story of G.I. Joe, the 11BD-inch every-soldier with 21 moving parts quickly became a fixture on backyard battlefields across the United States.
In 1967, Hasbro expanded the line to include a series of talking figures, and Hasbro Canada produced a Canadian Mounties set. That year also saw the release of the fabled G.I. Nurse Action Girl, a doll so rare that certain models mint-in-box can bring up to $6,000 on today’s collectors’ market.
"The G.I. Joe Nurse is so valuable today because it was released for only one year," says Sharon Korbeck, editorial director of Toy Shop, a biweekly magazine aimed at toy collectors. "The figure didn’t do very well because boys weren’t interested in a female doll, and girls weren’t interested in anything related to G.I. Joe."
Sales also suffered because toy store managers didn’t know how to position the doll. Some put her with the G.I. Joe action figures, while others stocked her next to Barbie and her friends. Either way, 50% of the prospective market was lost.
"Another problem was that Hasbro didn’t have any accessory sets for the G.I. Joe Nurse," adds Dale Womer, owner of The Joe Depot, a retail store in Parkesburg, Pa., that specializes in G.I. Joe collectibles. "If the company had given girls more to play with, the doll might have enjoyed greater success. It was a stark contrast to the playability of a Barbie doll."
No belle of the ball
Then there was the doll’s appearance. G.I. Jane (as she’s occasionally known among collectors, though she never had a proper name) wasn’t exactly the belle of the ball, which put her at a severe disadvantage compared to the preternaturally attractive Barbie.
So what did boys and girls get for their allowance money if they bought a G.I. Joe Nurse in 1967? According to Brian Savage of Fort Worth, Texas, director of the G.I. Joe Collectors’ Club and a dealer in contemporary G.I. Joe merchandise, the G.I. Joe Nurse came with a World War II-era nursing uniform, white hose, a small hat bearing a red cross, white shoes, a small medic bag, bandages, crutches, splints, and a bottle of plasma. Unfortunately, the hat is typically missing when a G.I. Joe Nurse comes on the market today, Savage says, because it was too small to fit her head properly and thus easy to misplace.
Missing accessories are just one of many factors that determine the overall value of a G.I. Joe Nurse — when you can find one. Condition, of course, is paramount; the better the doll’s appearance, the more valuable it is. Not surprisingly, though, few dolls can be considered pristine today. Back in the 1960s, children actually played with their toys rather than merely display them on a shelf, so it’s not uncommon for G.I. Joe Nurses to show signs of wear and tear, including chopped hair and body damage. Sometimes, the latter can be extreme. Savage once acquired a G.I. Joe Nurse that was missing the lower portion of one arm. Still eager to have the piece in his collection, he hired an artist to create a "prosthetic" limb.
"A nurse (doll) that is complete and in good condition but with no box is worth between $800 and $1,200," says Savage, who promotes an annual G.I. Joe convention that attracts thousands of fans from around the world. "If you have the box, the value increases to the $3,000 to $4,000 range."
The 2004 edition of Toys and Prices, an annual price guide published by Toy Shop, lists the nurse doll as one of the top three G.I. Joe collectibles when found in mint condition, right behind the Action Soldiers of the World Talking Adventure Pack and the ultra-rare Canadian Mounties set, which was sold only in Canada.
Adding to the collectibility of the G.I. Joe Nurse is that her medic bag came in two colors — green and white. The green medic bag was standard issue and that’s what most nurse dolls come with, Womer says. But in the waning months of the doll’s availability, Hasbro released it with a white medic bag, which now is a rare collectible. "I’ve seen only two dolls with white medic bags in 20 years," Womer says. "One of them sold for more than $6,000."
Complete the collection
Most of the people in pursuit of the G.I. Joe Nurse are hard-core G.I. Joe collectors who need the doll to complete their collections. There’s also a subset of G.I. Joe collectors who are into creating detailed dioramas with their figures. For them, a nurse doll can help complete a scene of injured soldiers receiving treatment on the battlefield.
Then there are real nurses who covet the doll. The number of nurses actively seeking this prized toy is impossible to determine, but they’re definitely out there, dealers say.
Eight or 10 years ago, Womer was approached by a woman who wanted to buy a G.I. Joe Nurse for her daughter, who had become an RN and had owned a G.I. Joe Nurse as a child. The mother said she felt guilty about getting rid of the toy and wanted to give her daughter another as a gift. Womer sold her a nice example for about $1,200.
"She was shocked by the price, but ended up buying it," Womer says. "I remember that sale because both the mother and the daughter wrote me letters of thanks. The daughter told me the G.I. Joe Nurse was one of her favorite toys as a child."v